Questionable DACA Studies Cited in Senate Hearing

By Preston Huennekens on October 5, 2017

On Tuesday the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing entitled "Oversight of the Administration's Decision to End Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals." As the title suggests, the hearing focused on the effects of President Trump's September 5 decision to roll back the DACA program.

The committee convened two panels. The first consisted of administration officials from the Justice Department, US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Department of Homeland Security. The second panel included non-government witnesses, including the Center's Director of Policy Studies, Jessica Vaughan. Her testimony to the committee addressed a wide range of concerns spanning the entirety of the DACA program, from the initial announcement in 2012 to today.

During the hearing, committee members and witnesses cited three different studies of DACA recipients. There are significant differences in the reliability, methodology, and usefulness among these studies. (I've written about this topic before in more detail.) It is important to analyze these studies individually for the value they bring to the DACA debate.

The first study cited was "Becoming DACAmented: Assessing the Short-Term Benefits of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" written by Harvard researcher Roberto Gonzales and published in the journal American Behavioral Scientist.

  • Sample population: Gonzalez surveyed 2,381 individuals who have DACA status. This is the "largest data collection effort to date on this population" in Gonzalez's own words. This is extremely important to highlight because other studies do not sample actual DACA recipients, but merely those whose demographic information means they could "qualify" for DACA.
  • Acknowledged shortcomings: In the study, Gonzalez notes the shortcomings of his study, which is standard practice by any reputable researcher. He notes that the sample "excludes individuals who do not have access to the internet, and contains limited representation of less educated individuals." He also says that the sample is "less representative of individuals who lack connections to organizations used to recruit sample participants." By understanding that the sample selection method skewed the results of this data towards better-connected, higher-educated DACA recipients, we can make more accurate conclusions regarding study's findings.

It is important to note that although this study's participants are all DACA recipients, the sample itself does not really tell researchers all that much about the broader population of DACAs. As Gonzalez himself states, because of the nature of the sample selection, these results are not entirely representative of the general population. To represent it, and other similar surveys, as describing definitive facts about the DACA population is somewhat misleading given how difficult it is to create an accurate and representative sample of the true population.

During Senator Mazie Hirono's (D-Hawaii) questions, DACA recipient and current medical student Denise Rojas Marquez referenced a study by Tom Wong entitled "DACA Recipients' Economic and Educational Gains Continue to Grow" published by the liberal public policy advocacy group, the Center for American Progress. Ms. Marquez cited the study in her response to a question from Sen. Hirono:

I actually have some information, it was a new study, it's by the Center for American Progress Professor Tom Wong at UC San Diego, the national immigration law center, and this was conducted recently in August of 2017. And this had, it was a little bit of a larger study, it was 3,063 respondents in 46 states and the District of Columbia, and similar findings in terms of education 45% of respondents were still in school, 72% pursuing a Bachelor's degree or higher among those individuals. And for those who are currently in school, 94% of respondents said that because of DACA "I have pursued educational opportunities I previously could not."

Sen. Hirono and Ms. Marquez reference this study as an up-to-date version of the same data collected in the Gonzalez study. That assumption is simply wrong. Three unapologetically pro-DACA organizations sponsored this survey: United We Dream, the National Immigration Law Center, and the aforementioned Center for American Progress. This study has a number of shortcomings and red flags:

  • Questionable methods to create sample: A poll or survey is only as strong as its sample. In this study, the sample is very weak. To begin the survey, the organizations contacted people they knew personally to take the survey. This would include highly educated, highly motivated DACA activists who worked with these three groups. They then encouraged those people to reach out to their friends, relatives, and acquaintances to take the survey. Finally, to generate as many responses as possible, the researchers sent out Facebook ads. This kind of sample collection would not pass any kind of academic scrutiny and certainly does not accurately reflect any DACA recipients, but is instead skewed toward the views of activists.
  • Does not sample DACA recipients: Unlike Gonzalez's study, this survey does not sample actual DACA recipients. There is no guarantee that the people who opted in to this survey are even immigrants, let alone DACA recipients. As I described in more detail in an earlier blog post, someone taking the questionnaire could simply have generated an imaginative and consistent migration story that would pass verification, regardless of their actual immigration status.

During the same question-and-answer period, Sen. Hirono also brought up a study published by Ike Brannon of the Cato Institute entitled "The Economic and Fiscal Impact of Repealing DACA". Sen. Hirono read that the researchers found that removing DACA protections and deporting DACA recipients from the United States would reduce economic growth in the United States to the tune of $280 billion.

Unlike the Gonzalez and Wong studies, Cato’s report is not a survey of DACA recipients, but merely an estimation of their economic impact. Nonetheless, its notable shortcoming is worth noting. Because there is no publicly-available data on the income of DACA recipients, the authors arrived at their estimates by "comparing and adjusting the characteristics of DACA recipients to similarly well-educated immigrants admitted through the H-1B visa program." This is an apples-to-oranges comparison. To begin, H-1B visa holders are generally required to hold a bachelor's or master's degree and are mostly employed in STEM fields, although they can work in any specialty occupation.

To assume that all DACA recipients – including the many who have dropped out of high school and college and those working in low-pay jobs – compare accurately to H-1B professionals is highly misleading and in turn generates the greater economic impact on the United States that the authors set to find with this report. For this comparison to be accurate there would need to be survey data that shows that DACA recipients overwhelmingly fit the profile of an H-1B worker. No widely cited DACA survey warrants this comparison.

The Gonzalez and Wong studies discussed previously are both based on surveys. There is another way that researchers have tried to draw conclusions about the DACA population. This is by using census data to construct population estimates. Researchers create these estimates from the census data by taking the parameters established in DACA (age range, nativity, etc.) to then establish a population eligible for DACA. These studies are helpful because they are able to isolate a segment of the population that fits within the DACA parameters to produce a sample. Unfortunately, this approach has its own shortcomings, and is really nothing more than an educated guess as to what the DACA-eligible population may look like.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services has access to a trove of information on DACA recipients because they all had to register with USCIS and apply for renewal under the rules of the program. If USCIS so wished, it could compile this information and release it so that the public and researchers alike could see for themselves the characteristics of the DACA population. Even a 1 percent sample of the undisclosed USCIS data would be useful to researchers. But until USCIS releases such data, we will have to rely on a variety of studies, using various methods, to study the DACA population in any depth.